By MELINDA DESLATTE
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The Louisiana Senate’s new Republican president will continue a tradition for bipartisan leadership across the majority-GOP chamber’s subject-matter committees, but Republicans will take charge of the key financial and redistricting panels.
Senate President Page Cortez, a Lafayette Republican unanimously elected to the top job, released the membership breakdown of the Senate’s 17 standing committees Friday. He named Republican as leaders of 12 panels and gave Democrats — including the head of the state Democratic Party — the chairmanships of five panels.
The most closely-watched committees with domain over the budget, taxes and the redrawing of political district lines, however, will be firmly in Republican hands in a chamber where the GOP holds 27 of 39 seats.
Committee chairmen have wide latitude in scheduling hearings on bills assigned to their panels and in deciding how those bills will be debated. Cortez said he tried to divvy up the jobs in line with the proportional makeup of the Senate membership along gender, racial and party lines.
Senate rules require the Senate Finance Committee to include at least one member from each congressional district. But Cortez also extended that to the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee that will be overseeing the politically sensitive task of redistricting, the remapping of legislative and congressional political boundaries.
“I asked for requests from everyone, and I tried as much as I could to meet their requests by interest area,” Cortez told The Associated Press. “That played probably as big a part in it as anything.”
He noted, for example, that senators from coastal areas wanted to serve on the natural resources committee, while senators from rural farm areas sought seats on the agriculture committee.
Baton Rouge area Sen. Mack “Bodi” White will helm the Finance Committee that draws up the state’s annual operating budget. Sen. Bret Allain of Franklin will oversee the Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee that handles tax policy. And Slidell Sen. Sharon Hewitt will take charge of the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee that governs redistricting. All are in the GOP.
Democrats will take charge of the education, labor, local affairs and retirement committees, along with one of three judiciary panels.
Among the Democrats, Sen. Cleo Fields of Baton Rouge, returning to the Senate after a 12-year absence, will chair the education panel. New Orleans Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, the chair of the Louisiana Democratic Party, will oversee the Local and Municipal Affairs Committee, which deals with local government oversight. Sen. Gary Smith, of Norco, will continue to lead the Judiciary B Committee, which handles criminal justice issues.
Though Cortez’s committee leadership team is bipartisan, his decisions still strike a more Republican-focused, independent course for the chamber.
Cortez’s predecessor, Republican John Alario, had given leadership of the budget and tax committees to Democrats and stacked the tax panel with a majority of Democrats even though they were a minority in the chamber last term. A long-time lawmaker and close ally of Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, Alario devised certain committees in ways that could help Edwards’ agenda. Alario’s majority-Democratic tax committee, for example, advanced tax hike measures sought by Edwards, while killing several Republican-sponsored tax cut measures opposed by the governor.
Cortez’s decisions give Republicans the controlling majorities even on committees led by Democrats.
Three Republican lawmakers who have never served in the Senate will chair committees: Stewart Cathey will be in charge of the Agriculture Committee; Kirk Talbot will oversee the Insurance Committee; and Franklin Foil will lead a judiciary committee. Talbot and Foil each spent 12 years in the House before moving to the Senate.
Of four Senate select committees — which don’t handle legislation, but study specific issues throughout the year — Republicans will lead the coastal restoration and homeland security panels, while Democrats will be at the helm of the veterans affairs panel and a committee overseeing women’s and children’s issues.